Monday, August 14, 2023

Saturday, July 1, 2023

The end of affirmative action

The Crimson asked me to weigh in on the SCOTUS ruling against Harvard. My piece ("Unfinished Business") is now up. It's Harvard-specific. I don't think losing this case will actually matter much to Harvard, given that the majority opinion invites colleges to consider race in its admissions practices insofar as race matters to the experience of the individual applicant. Harvard's process is so unmechanized and individualized already that I bet the outcomes will be very similar in the future. Not so, I imagine, at other institutions reliant on rule-based systems for making admissions decisions. I do fear that the majority opinion will motivate "disadvantage" to be used as, and seen as, a proxy for racial classification. That may be fairer in one way, but it would incentivize a lot of whining by perfectly solid candidates about the traumas they have endured. The self-confident world-beaters with positive attitudes are going to be discouraged from presenting themselves that way. Again, though, Harvard at least will adjust; the Admissions folks know how many grains of salt with which to take application essays.
The bigger problem, of course, the problem for all of higher education, is that an institution that wants to "look like America" and admit students from across the spectrum of American high schools has to deal with the very high, and increasing, variance in the quality of American high schools. The paradoxes of fairness will not go away until that variance shrinks. (For example, should admissions offices, in an effort to favor the disadvantaged, penalize the low-income family that sacrificed all discretionary spending so they could move into a better school district where their kids would be better educated?) And while I would be glad to see Harvard and other universities work on that problem, I am skeptical that they can do much about it, since it is fundamentally political. America believes in local control and local funding of schools, and is skeptical of national standards and national curricula. Within those parameters, it seems to me that nationally representative universities like Harvard will continue to be dealing with enrolled students with sharply different levels of preparation.
(By the way, the other SCOTUS decision, on Biden's ambition to cancel student debt, is absolutely irrelevant to Harvard College, since undergraduates don't ordinarily graduate with significant debt. Of course it may affect students in the professional schools or in Continuing Education, some of whom have racked up significant debt before coming to Harvard or may borrow in order to attend Harvard's graduate schools.)

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Video recording of my Skolem Lecture on The Birth of Binary

 A video recording of my Skolem Lecture in Oslo on the Birth of Binary is now available here.

The Birth of Binary: Leibniz and the Origins of Computer Arithmetic

The curious history of the binary number system includes a multimillennial prehistory and a few early seventeenth-century sparks that did not catch fire. Though several others independently came up with the binary system, my recent translation and edition (with British intellectual historian Lloyd Strickland) of mostly unpublished works on binary by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) establishes Leibniz as the key progenitor of the arithmetic used in today’s communications and computing technologies. I will review Leibniz’s research on binary notation, his increasingly sophisticated algorithms for binary arithmetic, his development of some rudiments of Boolean algebra to describe his calculus symbolically, his improvisation of a concatenation semigroup to describe patterns in bit strings, his plans for two different binary calculators, and his invention of what we now call hexadecimal notation, complete with four different notations for the hex digits, including the one in general use today. I will also comment on Leibniz’s efforts to universalize his invention by connecting it to Christian and Chinese traditions.

 

Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, holds AB and PhD degrees in Applied Mathematics from Harvard. A member of the Harvard faculty since 1974, he has helped launch thousands of Harvard undergraduates, including both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, into careers in computer science. Principal architect of Harvard’s undergraduate computer science program, he served as Dean of Harvard College and interim dean of Harvard’s Engineering School and was the recipient of the IEEE’s 2021 Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award. His recent books include an edited collection of classic computer science papers, “Ideas that Created the Future,” as well as “Leibniz on Binary” with Lloyd Strickland, both published by MIT Press.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Voter Suppression, Harvard-Style

(This piece is jointly authored by Harry Lewis and Bill Gasarch, who is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland at College Park.)


There are elections in Hong Kong, but to get on the ballot you have to be nominated by a committee controlled by Beijing government.

 

Elections for the Harvard Board of Overseers—one of Harvard’s two governing bodies—are almost as well-controlled. A Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) nominating committee curates a slate of candidates, from which alumni make their selections.

 

But an alternative route to get on the Harvard ballot exists, at least in theory. So-called “petition” candidates have always been rare—but after several climate activists were elected in 2020, the rules were changed to make it even harder. Among other things, the number of petitions to get on the ballot was raised by a factor of fifteen, to more than three thousand. 

 

This year, noted civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate, concerned about freedom of expression at Harvard, is trying to make it onto the ballot. 

 

The authors are computer scientists. We are neither technologically na├»ve nor afraid of computers. Harry has long been concerned about issues of student freedom and Harvard governance, and suggested to Bill, Harry’s sometime PhD student, that he sign Silverglate’s petition. This is an account of Bill’s trip through the resulting electronic purgatory.

 

To add your name, you have to fill out a web form. To access the web form, you need a HarvardKey. To get a HarvardKey, you have to fill out another web form. So far, so good.

 

The HarvardKey web form wanted Bill’s 10-digit HAA ID, which he was told to find on the address sticker of his copy of a recent Harvard Magazine (sent to all alumni). Bill had one handy, so he looked and found … a 9-digit number. He tried entering that number—no luck. He noticed it began with three 0s, and tried adding a fourth—that did not work either. 

 

The web form had a number to call. Someone answered, and said some information would be needed before dealing with digits. Name (fine). Year of degree (fine). MIDDLE name (well, fine, though no one but Bill’s mother ever used it, and only when indignant). Date of birth (well, OK, but now we’re getting into territory we don’t casually reveal any more). When he got his MASTER’s degree. Bill did not know—that’s just something Harvard gives en route to the PhD. Turned out he actually didn’t need to know, an estimate was good enough. The person on the phone gave him his HAA ID, which bore no relation to the number on his address sticker. 

 

Let’s pause there. Some people never call tech support because they have never found it helpful to do so. Any such person with a 9-digit address sticker number could not participate in the petition process.

 

Bill entered his HAA ID and received an error message saying that … KEY-5003 was missing. Happily, Bill had kept the support person on the phone (this was not his first rodeo).

 

Missing KEY-5003 turned out to mean that Harvard did not have his email address. He supplied it and was told he would get an email confirmation later in the day.

 

He did get an email later in the day. It listed eleven steps to claim his HarvardKey. Step 6 was to wait for a confirming email (he thought this WAS the confirming email), but after step 5 the system told him he was not in the system and it could not continue.

 

Another call to a support line. No, Bill was told, he has to wait 24 hours to get his email address updated, and would not get a confirming email. Just try tomorrow. Like the email said. Except that it didn’t say that, nor had the person he spoke to on the previous call.

 

Bill waited 24 hours and tried again, and got a little further through the eleven steps—and then was told to wait ANOTHER 24 hours for the account to activate. 

 

24 hours later he tried again, from home, and failed again. Then he went to his office and succeeded—no clue why.

 

Now finally he got to the petition, which required Bill’s graduation year—and Silverglate’s­­, which Bill found but shouldn’t have been needed since this petition was specific to Silverglate.

 

Three days and two phone calls to sign the petition. To be fair, the people Bill spoke to on the phone were kind and helpful. Probably they themselves were struggling with the systems.

 

And we knew already that HAA is technologically challenged. A few weeks ago, it abruptly announced that it could no longer handle email forwarding. After alumni blowback, it just as abruptly announced that it would NOT end its forwarding service—oddly, while cautioning that the service was unlikely ever to work very well. 

 

When election officials want to suppress the vote somewhere, they under-resource the voting process, forcing voters to cross town and wait in long lines. What happened to Bill is so comical that it is hard to imagine that the specifics were intentional. On the other hand, under-resourcing the petitioning process, allowing it to be so defective, misinformed, and hard to use that many people won’t exercise their franchise—isn’t that a form of voter suppression?

 

Why not be true to Harvard’s motto, Veritas, and just post on the web, “For the alumni to choose the Overseers is an anachronism. Today’s alumni voters can’t be trusted to do it wisely. Since we can’t get rid of this system, we are going to make it all but impossible to nominate by petition. Try if you wish, but if you do, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Monday, November 28, 2022

Skolem Lecture on "The Birth of Binary" – 8 December 2022

Following publication of my edition, with Lloyd Strickland, of Leibniz's writings on binary arithmetic, I'll be giving the annual Thoralf Skolem Memorial Lecture at the University of Oslo on December 8, and it will be both live-streamed and recorded. The lecture will be at 1:15pm Oslo time, which is 7:15am EST. Here is the full information, including the Zoom link (I imagine a link to the recording will at some point be posted on the last page linked below):

The 2022 Thoralf Skolem Memorial Lecture


Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University.


The Birth of Binary: Leibniz and the Origins of Computer Arithmetic


The curious history of the binary number system includes a multimillennial prehistory and a few early seventeenth-century sparks that did not catch fire. Though several others independently came up with the binary system, my recent translation and edition (with British intellectual historian Lloyd Strickland) of mostly unpublished works on binary by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) establishes Leibniz as the key progenitor of the arithmetic used in today’s communications and computing technologies. I will review Leibniz’s research on binary notation, his increasingly sophisticated algorithms for binary arithmetic, his development of some rudiments of Boolean algebra to describe his calculus symbolically, his improvisation of a concatenation semigroup to describe patterns in bit strings, his plans for two different binary calculators, and his invention of what we now call hexadecimal notation, complete with four different notations for the hex digits, including the one in general use today. I will also comment on Leibniz’s efforts to universalize his invention by connecting it to Christian and Chinese traditions.


Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, holds AB and PhD degrees in Applied Mathematics from Harvard. A member of the Harvard faculty since 1974, he has helped launch thousands of Harvard undergraduates, including both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, into careers in computer science. Principal architect of Harvard’s undergraduate computer science program, he served as Dean of Harvard College and interim dean of Harvard’s Engineering School and was the recipient of the IEEE’s 2021 Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award. His recent books include an edited collection of classic computer science papers, “Ideas that Created the Future,” as well as “Leibniz on Binary” with Lloyd Strickland, both published by MIT Press.


Time and place: December 8, 2022, 13:15 –15:00, Georg Sverdrups hus (Universitetsbiblioteket), Blindern, Auditorium 1.



It will be possible to follow the lecture on Zoom:

              https://uio.zoom.us/j/63956167845


Fore more on the Skolem Lecture, see  https://www.hf.uio.no/ifikk/english/research/groups/logic/events/.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Virtue signaling, at the Kennedy School and elsewhere

The imperative to show our commitment to redress social injustices, even if it means overshooting the mark, takes Harvard to positions that are, if not literally indefensible, far beyond what most of the community would be willing to defend. Extreme positions may even offend and injure the very people they are voiced to advance. To declare such a position is "virtue signaling"--broadcasting to some audience our own good intentions, regardless of antipathy such declarations may excite in the general public or the resentment that may result in the affected population.

Some years ago, for example, I was in a faculty meeting where faculty candidates were to be chosen to receive offers. Someone said he would support any set of candidates, as long as at least one was a woman. This way of putting it simultaneously signaled flexibility, virtue, and determination to right a historical injustice. I cringed, and not just because such a stipulation would be, as I understood it, illegal if adopted broadly and not at all what Harvard means when it favors "affirmative action." That would have been enough, but I instinctively glanced around the room, wondering whether the women faculty present for the discussion were pleased to think their male colleagues were devoutly committed to gender diversity on the faculty--or were asking themselves if they had been deemed second-tier intellectually when they themselves were hired and were still thought of that way.

Something of the same strikes me about this scene, captured a couple of weeks ago in the men's room on the second floor of Wexner Hall at the Harvard Kennedy School. (No, I had not made a mistake about where I was; I left and double-checked that I was in the MEN's room, before re-entering to use the urinal.)


As the availability of menstrual products in men's rooms is a new thing, it's fair to assume that the new stocking protocol responds to concerns of the kind voiced in the People Have Periods campaign, showing transgender men menstruating.

Now I don't doubt that some trans men have periods and haven't carried supplies with them, but I doubt it's a common occurrence. Trans men usually stop menstruating within a year of within a year of the time they start on testosterone. (Weiselberg, E., 2022. Menstrual considerations for transgender male and gender diverse adolescents who were assigned female at birth. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, p.101239.) So this accommodation is for a minority of a minority of a minority--trans men, in the first year of their transition, who have forgotten to carry supplies with them. It would not swell the number much to add a few forgetful nonbinary menstruating individuals who use the men's room when they have to make a choice.

Whatever the number might be, it is surely smaller than the number of people who might benefit from stocking public bathrooms with other items. For example, it must be less than the number who have nicked themselves and just need a bandaid--and have to walk around the corner to CVS to buy a box rather than bleeding in public, bathrooms not having been stocked with free bandaids. Or the number of people who, like me, wish there were sharps receptacles in more bathrooms, because we use syringes, lancets, and subcutaneous needles for medical therapies. (Most such sharps now come with plastic sheaths, but it is still improper to toss them in the paper towel bin, where they are hazardous to custodians. And implanting some devices, such as the Silhouette infusion set, leaves the user with a nastily evil unsheathed needle to get rid of.) 

So the sanitary product display seems to me the essence of virtue signaling--doing something not for what it actually accomplishes but for what it says about the way others feel about the affected group. Now one might counter that yes, it is exactly because trans men are a socially marginalized group, while shavers and diabetics are not, that it is important to make small gestures--such as stocking men's rooms with sanitary products--to show them and everyone else that they are welcome and included.

But there's a problem, and it's the same worry I have about hire-a-woman declarations in faculty meetings. Trans men who have planned ahead may not want to be reminded, and to have others reminded, that they have periods. The publication cited above on this subject says, " [M]enstruation for transgender males, and other gender diverse individuals assigned female at birth, may be anything but celebratory. … Menstruation or the anticipation of menarche for many transgender males is often met with worsening of dysphoria, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Therefore, to meet the physiologic and psychologic needs of transgender males, one needs to be aware of issues that may be present in relation to menstruation and be knowledgeable on how to medically proceed with sensitivity and respect toward one's gender identity."

In any case, it seems likely to this old-fashioned integrationist that that trans men may generally wish to be treated as men, not as trans men, in the same way I expect that most women faculty wish to be treated by their peers as faculty first and women faculty secondarily. It also seems to me that the most likely result of putting those supplies in the men's room is not that they will be used, but that some bozo will throw them on the floor or into the trash, someone else will discover that and complain to university officials, who will express their outrage and solidarity and promulgate a re-education program on the Harvard community such as we already receive on other social issues affecting the workplace and classroom.

Those who have made the difficult decision to change their gender deserve our support, just as efforts to diversify the faculty are worthy when they do not conflict with deeper principles. Showy public gestures, in the place of more substantive help, are acts of politics more than of kindness. They are ways to get Harvard to stake out its position in American culture wars. I do hope the University can become less political in the future and refocused on academic issues instead.

Of course, it is also possible this was all just a mistake made by a sleepless janitor!

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Harvard Alumni: Sign Harvey Silverglate's petition to get on the ballot for the Overseers

 Noted civil libertarian and free speech advocate Harvey Silverglate is trying to be elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers. I know Harvey well and have never met a more principled person -- and on top of that, I admire the principles he stands for and his way of defending them, even though we don't always agree on how they should play out in practice. He is exactly the kind of no-BS person who should be on the Board of Overseers to challenge Harvard's authoritarian tendencies and the verbal dreck Harvard too often uses to justify positions that cannot survive rational scrutiny.

Most Overseer nominees are selected by an HAA committee, but there is a process for alumni to nominate additional names to appear on the ballot. That process involves collecting quite a few nominations from alumni. If you hold a Harvard degree and are not currently on the Harvard payroll, you are eligible to add your name to the petitioners.

The link is on Harvey's web site: https://www.harvey4harvard.com/, where you can learn more about him. When you click through to fill out the petition, you need to fill in your own name and degree information (Harvard School and year of degree) as well as Harvey Silverglate's (Harvard Law School, 1967). Please do it now -- he needs more than 3000 signatures over roughly the next 90 days -- and tell your Harvard-educated friends and relatives to do so too!